Why Did Hatshepsut Become King? Why Stay in Power?

What was the motivation for Hatshepsut to assume full power as king of Egypt?

Hatshepsut as King, Offering Food to the God Horus
Hatshepsut as King, Offering Food to the God Horus: Image from the Temple of Hatshepsut, Luxor, Egypt. Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

In about 1473 BCE, a woman, Hatshepsut, took the unprecedented step of becoming king of Egypt with full kingship powers and a male identity. She thus displaced, for about two decades, her stepson and nephew Thutmose III, assumed heir of her husband. And she did this in a time of relative peace and considerable economic prosperity and stability in Egypt; most women who ruled as regents or solely did so in chaotic times.

Here's a summary of some of the current thinking about Hatshepsut's motivations for becoming—and remaining—the Pharaoh of Egypt.

Initial Rule as Regent: A Tradition

Hatshepsut's initial rule was as the regent for her stepson, and though she was depicted as a senior ruler and he as the junior partner in their rule, she did not initially take on full kingship. In ruling as a regent, protecting the throne for her husband's heir, she was following in some recent footsteps.  Other women of the 18th Dynasty had ruled in that relationship.

The Trouble With Titles

Women rulers before Hatshepsut had ruled as the mother of the next king. But Hatshepsut's regency was a bit different, and thus her legitimacy in ruling may not have been quite so clear.

For kings of ancient Egypt, we often use the title Pharaoh—a word derived from an Egyptian word that came to be used for individuals only with the New Kingdom, about the time of Thutmose III.

The meaning of the word is "Great House" and earlier may have referred to the government or, perhaps, the royal palace. The more generic "king" is probably more accurate a title for describing the royal rulers of ancient Egypt. But later usage has made the title "Pharaoh" common for any king of Egypt.

No Queens?

There's no word in ancient Egypt equivalent to the English word "queen"—that is, a female equivalent of king. In English, it's customary to use the word "queen" not just for women who ruled as fully equivalent of kings, but also for the consorts of kings. In ancient Egypt, and more to the point in the Eighteenth Dynasty, the titles of consorts of kings include such titles as King's Wife or King's Great Wife. If she was eligible, she might also be designated King's Daughter, King's Mother, or King's Sister.

God's Wife

The King's Great Wife might also be called God's Wife, probably referring to the wife's religious role. With the New Kingdom, the god Amun became central, and several kings (including Hatshepsut) depicted themselves as divinely conceived by the god Amun, coming to the Great Wife of their (earthly) father in the guise of that father. The disguise would have protected the wife from allegations of adultery—one of the most serious offenses against marriage in ancient Egypt. At the same time, the divine parent story let people know that the new King had been chosen to rule, even from conception, by the god Amun.

The first king's wives to be named as God's Wife were Ahhotep and Ahmos-Nefertari.

Ahhotep was the mother of the founder of the Eighteenth Dynasty, Ahmose I, and the sister/wife of Ahmose I, Ahmos-Nefertari. Ahhotep I was the daughter of the previous king, Taa I, and wife of her brother, Taa II. The title God's Wife has been found on her coffin, so it may not have been used during her lifetime. Inscriptions have been found as well naming Ahmos-Nefertari as God's Wife. Ahmos-Nefertari was the daughter of Ahmos I and Ahhotep, and wife of Amenhotep I.

The title God's Wife was used later for other Great Wives, including Hatshepsut. It was also used for her daughter, Neferure, who apparently used it when performing in religious rites alongside her mother Hatshepsut after Hatshepsut had assumed the power, title, and image of a male king.

The title fell largely out of use by the middle of the Eighteenth Dynasty.

No Title for Regent?

There was also no word in ancient Egyptian for "regent."

When women earlier in the Eighteenth Dynasty ruled for their sons during their son's minority, they were described with the title "King's Mother.

Hatshepsut's Title Problem

With Hatshepsut, the title "King's Mother" would have been problematic. Her husband, Thutmose II, died when his only known surviving son was probably quite young. Thutmose III's mother was a minor, presumably non-royal wife named Isis. Isis had the title, King's Mother. Hatshepsut, as the King's Great Wife, half-sister to her husband, Thutmose II, had more claim on royal descent than Thutmose III's mother, Isis. Hatshepsut was the one chosen to be regent.

But Thutmose III was her stepson and nephew. Hatshepsut had titles of King's Daughter, King's Sister, King's Great Wife, and God's Wife—but she was not King's Mother.

This may be part of the reason it became—or seemed at the time—necessary for Hatshepsut to take another title, one unprecedented for a King's Wife: King.

Ironically, by taking the title "King," Hatshepsut may also have made it difficult for her successors to carry on any public memory of her co-rule with or regency for Thutmose III.

Wicked Stepmother Theory

Older versions of Hatshepsut's story assume that Hatshepsut seized power and ruled as a "wicked stepmother," and that her stepson and successor got his revenge after her death by removing her memory from history. Is this what happened?

Soon after evidence of the existence of a female pharaoh, Hatshepsut, was recovered in the 19th century, archaeologists figured out that

  1. Hatshepsut had ruled as a king, and not just regent for her stepson and nephew, Thutmose III;
  2. someone, presumably Thutmose III, had defaced inscriptions and statues, attempting apparently to remove evidence of such rule; and
  3. Hatshepsut had an unusually close relationship with a commoner, Senenmut.

The conclusion many drew was what's now referred to as the "wicked stepmother" story. Hatshepsut was assumed to have taken advantage of the true heir's infancy or youth, and seized power from him.

Hatshepsut was also assumed to have ruled alongside Senenmet, or at least with his support, and to have taken him as her lover.

As soon as Hatshepsut died, in this story, Thutmose III was free to exercise his own power. Out of hatred and resentment, he carried out a vicious attempt to erase her memory from history.

Questioning the Story

Although traces of this story can still be found in many reference sources, especially older ones, the "wicked stepmother" story eventually became suspect. New archaeological finds—and, perhaps, changing cultural assumptions in our own world that influenced assumptions of Egyptologists—led to serious questioning of the "Hatshepsut the wicked stepmother" myth.

Selective Removal of Images

It became apparent that the campaign to remove Hatshepsut's inscriptions had been selective. Images or names of Hatshepsut as queen or priestess were far less likely to be defaced than images or names of Hatshepsut as a king. Images unlikely to be seen by the public were far less likely to be attacked than those that were obvious.

Removal Was Not Immediate

It also became apparent that the campaign didn't happen immediately after Hatshepsut died and Thutmose III became sole ruler. One would expect a hate-filled campaign rooted in deep resentment would take place more quickly.

It was thought that the wall around the bottom of Hatshepsut's obelisks was built by Thutmose III to cover images of Hatshepsut. The date of the wall was put at about twenty years after Hatshepsut's death. Since images on the lower covered part of the obelisks weren't defaced and represented Hatshepsut as king, this led to the conclusion that it took at least twenty years for Thutmose III to get around to this literal cover-up of Hatshepsut's kingship.

At least one group, a French archaeology team, conclude that Hatshepsut herself had the wall built. Does that mean that Thutmose III's campaign could have been immediate?

No—because new evidence shows statues with cartouches naming Hatshepsut as king were built over about ten years into Thutmose III's sole reign. So, today, Egyptologists generally conclude that Thutmose III took at least ten to twenty years to get around to removing the Hatshepsut-as-king evidence.

Thutmose III Not Idle

To read some of the older sources, you'd think Thutmose III was idle and inactive until after the death of his "wicked stepmother." It was commonly reported that after Hatshepsut's death, Thutmose III embarked on a series of military campaigns. The implication: that Thutmose III was powerless while Hatshepsut lived, but that he was so militarily successful afterwards that some have called him the "Napoleon of Egypt."

Now, evidence has been interpreted to show that, after Thutmose III was old enough, and before Hatshepsut's death, he became head of Hatshepsut's army, and actually carried out several military campaigns.

This means that it's highly unlikely that Hatshepsut held Thutmose III as a virtual prisoner, helpless until her death to take power. In fact, as head of the army, he was in a position to seize power and depose his stepmother during her lifetime, if he were—as the "wicked stepmother" story would have it—festering with resentment and hate.

Hatshepsut and the Egyptian Theology of Kingship

When Hatshepsut took power as king, she did so in a context of religious beliefs. We might call this mythology today, but to the ancient Egyptian, the identification of the king with certain deities and powers was essential for the security of the unified Egypt. Among these deities were Horus and Osiris.

In ancient Egypt, including in the time of the Eighteenth Dynasty and Hatshepsut, the king's role was tied up with theology—with beliefs about the gods and religion.

By the time of the Eighteenth Dynasty, the king (pharaoh) was identified with three separate creation myths, all of which featured a male exercising generative creative power. As with many other religions, this identification of the king with generativity was assumed to be the foundation of the generativity of the land. The king's power, in other words, was believed to be at the base of Egypt's survival, thriving, strength, stability, and prosperity.

Ancient Egypt was comfortable with human/divinity duality—with the idea that someone could be both human and divine. A king had both a human name and a crown name—not to mention a Horus name, a golden Horus name, and others. Kings "played parts" in the rituals—but to the Egyptians, the identification of the person and the god was real, not play.

Kings took on the identity with different gods at different times, without diminishing the power and truth of the identification within the Egyptian theology.

Religious rituals involving the king were believed to recreate the land. When a king died and the male heir was too young to take the role of the creative male gods in the rituals, the question was opened: whether Egypt could prosper and be stable during this time.

One wonders if the reverse might also be true: if Egypt turned out to be strong and stable and prosperous without those male-king-centered rituals, might not there be questions about whether the king was necessary? Whether the temple and its rituals were necessary?

Hatshepsut began to exercise a co-rulership with her stepson and nephew, Thutmose III. If she were to adequately protect Egypt's strength and power for the time when Thutmose III would be old enough to exercise power on his own, it may have been deemed necessary—by Hatsepsut? the priests? the court?—for Hatshepsut to take on these religious roles. It may have been deemed more dangerous to neglect those rites than to have Hatshepsut assume the maleness that was assumed to be needed to perform them properly.

Once Hatshepsut took the step of becoming fully king, she went to great lengths to justify that this was the "right thing to do"—that all was right with the universe even with a woman taking on a male and kingly role.

Heiress Theory

Many of the royal kings (pharaohs) of ancient Egypt were married to their sisters or half-sisters. Many kings who were not themselves the son of a king, were married to the daughter or sister of a king.

This has led some Egyptologists, since the 19th century, to post an "heiress" theory: that succession was through inheritance in a matriarchal line. This theory has been applied to the Eighteenth Dynasty, and thought to explain the justification Hatshepsut might have used to declare herself a king. But in the Eighteenth Dynasty, there are a number of instances where a king's mother and/or wife is known or suspected not to be royal.

Amenhotep I, predecessor of Hatshepsut's father, Thutmose I, was married to Meryetamun who may or may not have been his sister, and thus royal. Thutmose I was not the son of a royal woman. Thutmose I's wives, Ahmes (mother of Hatshepsut) and Mutneferet, may or may not have been daughters of Ahmose I and sisters of his son, Amenhotep I.

Thutmose II and III were not sons of royal women, as far as is known. Both were born of minor, non-royal wives. Amenhotep II's mother and Thutmose III's wife, Meryetre, was almost certainly not royal.

Clearly, royalty could be seen in the Eighteenth Dynasty as passing through either father or mother.

In fact, Thutmose III's desire to emphasize the legitimacy of the descent of his son, Amenhotep II, through the patrilineal line of Thutmose I, II, and III, may have been a major motive for removing images and inscriptions that documented that Hatshepsut had been a king.

Why Did Hatshepsut Stay King?

If we think we understand why Hatshepsut or her advisors felt it necessary to take on the full kingship, there's one question left: why, when Thutmose III became old enough to rule, didn't he seize power or Hatshepsut step aside voluntarily?

The female pharaoh Hatshepsut ruled for more than two decades, first as a regent for her nephew and stepson, Thutmose III, then as full Pharaoh, assuming even a male identity.

Why didn't Thutmose III become the pharaoh (king) as soon as he came of age? Why didn't he remove his stepmother, Hatshepsut, from the kingship, and take power for himself, when he was old enough to rule?

It's estimated that Thutmose III was very young at the time his father, Thutmose II, died, Hatshepsut, wife and half-sister of Thutmose II, and thereby stepmother and aunt of Thutmose III, became regent for the young king.

In early inscriptions and images, Hatshepsut and Thutmose III are shown as co-rulers, with Hatshepsut taking a more senior position. And in year 7 of their joint reign, Hatshepsut took on the full powers and identity of a king, and is shown dressed as a male king from that time.

She reigned, it seems from the evidence, for more than 20 years. Surely Thutmose III would have been old enough to take over by the end of that time, whether by force or with Hatshepsut's cooperation? Does the failure of Hatshepsut to step aside speak for her usurpation of power against the will of Thutmose III? For his weakness and powerlessness, as in the no-longer-widely-accepted "wicked stepmother" story?

In ancient Egypt, the kingship was tied up with several religious myths. One was the Osiris / Isis / Horus myth. The king was identified, during life, with Horus—one of the king's formal titles was a "Horus name." At the king's death, the king became Osiris, father of Horus, and the new king became the new Horus.

What would it do to this identification of the deities Horus and Osiris with the king, if the previous king did not die before the new king took on full kingship? There are some co-ruling kings in Egyptian history. But there is no precedence for a former Horus. There was no way to become "un-king." Only death could lead to a new king.

Religious Reasons Thutmose III Could Not Take Power

It was most likely in Thutmose III's power to overthrow and kill Hatshepsut. He was general of her army, and his military prowess after her death attests to his skill and willingness to take risks. But he did not rise up and do so.

So if Thutmose III did not hate his stepmother, Hatshepsut, and out of hate want to overthrow and kill her, then it makes sense that for the sake of Maat (order, justice, rightness) that he cooperated with her remaining as king, once she'd taken the step of declaring herself king.

Hatshepsut had already apparently decided—or the priests or advisors had decided for her—that she must take on the role of king and a male identity, as there was also no precedence for a female Horus or Osiris. To break with the identification of the king with the myth of Osiris and Horus would have also been to question the identification itself, or to seem to open Egypt to chaos, the opposite of Maat.

Hatshepsut may have been, essentially, stuck with the identity of the king until her own death, for the sake of Egypt's prosperity and stability. And so also was Thutmose III stuck.

Sources consulted include:

  • James H. Breasted. A History of Egypt from the Earliest Times to the Persian Conquest. 1905.
  • Kara Cooney. Interview, July 3, 2007.
  • Aidan Dodson and Dyan Hilton. The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt. 2004.
  • W. F. Edgerton. Thutmosid Succession. 1933.
  • Zahi Hawass. The Realm of the Pharaoh. 2006.
  • John Ray. "Hatshepsut: the Female Pharaoh." History Today. Volume 44 number 5, May 1994.
  • Catharine H. Roehrig, editor. Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh. 2005. Article contributors include Ann Macy Roth, James P. Allen, Peter F. Dorman, Cathleen A. Keller, Catharine H. Roehrig, Dieter Arnold, Dorothea Arnold.
  • Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen. First aired: 7/15/07. Discovery Channel. Brando Quilico, executive producer.
  • Joyce Tyldesley. Chronicle of the Queens of Egypt. 2006.
  • Joyce Tyldesley. Hatchepsut the Female Pharaoh. 1996.